The Turkish legacy in South Africa: Challenging the colonial mindset

South Africa - Cape Town - 01 July 2023 - Awqaf SA along with its partner organisation Turkish Diyanet Vakfi, the Turkish Consulate in General Cape Town, Imam Development Programme, observed the SHARE THE CARE QURBANI. Awqaf SA embarked on a Qurbani distribution to homes on the Cape Flats. Parcels of meat were handed over to the recipients including the elderly, the frail and those have been affected financially. Picture: Leon Lestrade / African News Agency (ANA)

South Africa - Cape Town - 01 July 2023 - Awqaf SA along with its partner organisation Turkish Diyanet Vakfi, the Turkish Consulate in General Cape Town, Imam Development Programme, observed the SHARE THE CARE QURBANI. Awqaf SA embarked on a Qurbani distribution to homes on the Cape Flats. Parcels of meat were handed over to the recipients including the elderly, the frail and those have been affected financially. Picture: Leon Lestrade / African News Agency (ANA)

Published Jan 27, 2024

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While some argue that the Turkish presence in Africa originated in the 16th century when the Ottoman State established relations with the African Emirates, the history of Turks on the continent dates from the 840s.

Living in Africa, the Tulunids embraced an identity more African than Turkish, yet traces of their Turkish heritage persist in gold coins and architectural remnants found in Egypt.

The Ottomans arrived on the continent much later, in 1512, when Algerians sought assistance to defeat the Portuguese navy in the Mediterranean.

Ottoman Turks saved the countries in northern Africa from Western occupation and successfully administered them until World War I. British historian Arnold Toynbee described the Ottoman Empire as close to Plato’s ideal state.

The legacy of Turkish influence in South Africa stands as a compelling narrative, challenging the traditional colonial mindset imposed by European powers during the 19th century. One key aspect challenging the colonial mindset is the nature of Turkish diplomatic engagement.

Unlike the exploitative and domineering tactics employed by some Western colonial powers, the Ottomans pursued diplomatic relations with African states based on mutual respect and co-operation. While European colonial powers often manipulated religious differences to fuel divisions, the Ottomans’ engagement in Africa was marked by a more tolerant approach. Apart from this, Ottoman scholars were treated just as Africans by the colonisers because of their religious identity.

Professor of Islamic Theology, Hesham Neamatollah Effendi, of Ottoman descent, delivered a speech in Bo-Kaap, published in the Cape Argus on March 19, 1903: “Gentlemen, I wish to thank you all for the honour you have conferred upon me by electing me as your president. In reference to political affairs, we are not in a position to interfere much at present.

“However, there is a private bill brought forward by the Town Council of Cape Town asking Parliament for powers to establish locations for the Asiatics and other coloured people.

“Now, we, as a Muslim community, are included in one or the other category, although there are many European Muslims here. But, for the sake of being Muslims, they are classified as coloured or Asiatic. Now what are we going to do? Are we going to sit still and allow them to march to the station with our wives and children like sheep, as was done to the natives?

“No, certainly not ...! We shall have to fight against such legislation.”

Ottoman scholars, like Abubakr Effendi or Mahmud Fakih Effendi, learnt the local language, Cape Afrikaans, to teach their pupils in South Africa, while colonisers were forcing their language on African people on the continent.

The opening of the Turkish Maarif School in Cape Town this week reminds me of the last Ottoman school on Castle Street that was closed by the British Empire in 1914. It is sad that the Turkish legacy is not included in the school curriculum in the country, despite the Ottoman scholars fighting against colonial oppression and being buried in South Africa.

* Halim Gençoğlu.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

Cape Argus

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